Tag Archives: indefinite detention

Good news

Trigger warning: indefinite detention, electoral disenfranchisement, racism

The past few weeks have seemed like a bit of a parade of bad news – with Donald Trump’s ascendancy in the Republican primary among other worrisome events. Recently, however, there’s been a few small but significant changes that can give us hope.

Think of the children

After the number of unaccompanied children crossing into the US peaked in 2014, the public’s attention to the issue has steady declined. Even as fewer children have ended up in the overcrowded and dangerous detention facilities scattered across the southwest US, those already here have largely faced a toxic mixture of judicial neglect and increasingly unrealistic orders for them to leave the country.

A new report from Generation Progress touches on the issues that I and others noticed were looming problems just as the crisis began – that very few of these cases have assigned lawyers or even translators. Concerned Senators and Representatives have stepped in with new federal legislation requiring more extensive availability to those services as well as more thorough accountability for the agencies overseeing these detention facilities and court proceedings. Unfortunately, as long as the Senate and House are Republican-controlled, these reforms are unlikely to become law.

The day’s wages

In New York and California a similar tentative step forward, in this case on the minimum wage, has unfolded. In both progressive-leaning states with large labor pools, local activism was sufficient to push for incrementally raising the wage floor. In New York, the main determinant will be regional, with New York City proper seeing its wages move up the most quickly, followed by outlying parts of the urban center, and lastly other parts of the state. To a certain extent, that reflects cost of living, although across the state that will catapult minimum wage workers from $9 an hour into a more manageable economy. In California, the changes will be tailored more to the type of business, with smaller companies given slightly more time to adapt.

072814-minimum-wage_map
(Changes have so far been concentrated in states with minimum wages higher than the federal minimum wage, however. Image modified from here.)

Many commentators have viewed this as a reflection of the populist politics fueling Senator Sanders’ presidential run, but the piecemeal approach in both California and New York is more reflective of the gradual and contextual increases advocated by Secretary Clinton. Far from outside of these policy victories, Clinton took part in the celebratory rally put on by New York Governor Cuomo in her adoptive state.

Who counts the voters

Whether at the state level or federally, these different movements aimed at improving the quality of life have relied on elected leadership. In short, they have needed at least the possibility of voters caring about these issues to motivate political action. The capacity for that to happen as evenly as possible with the population of a district was upheld 8-0 by the Supreme Court on Monday in Evenwel v. Abbott.

This case was launched by the Project for Fair Representation, which previously played a role in an unsuccessful challenge to affirmative action and a fruitful dismantling of the electoral pre-clearance system. The racial dimensions of their work are deliberate and striking, and Evenwel was no exception. The Cato Institute (known for its own relationship with racist, colonialist, and antisemitic ideologies) published a rather flowery amicus curiae on behalf of the plaintiffs in Evenwel where they argued-

Once again this Court finds itself at the intersection of the VRA and the Fourteenth Amendment. The parties here are caught in the inevitable trap of (1) maintaining majority-minority districts under complex, overlapping standards and (2) administering electoral schemes that do little to advance racial equality while doing much to violate voter equality— the idea that each eligible voter’s vote should count equally. In the background of this conflict, there lurks a cacophony of precedent and oft-conflicting court administered standards that have arisen from Section 2 cases. Basic constitutional guarantees of equal protection inherent in the Fourteenth Amendment— such as OPOV—are getting lost in this thicket.

Avoiding racial discrimination under these circumstances is particularly difficult in jurisdictions where “total population” and “citizens of voting age population” (CVAP)—standard metrics for evaluating whether a district violates OPOV—diverge due to varied concentration of non-citizens. As with the tensions amicus Cato has described before, jurisdictions navigating between the VRA’s Scylla and the Constitution’s Charybdis are bound to wreck individual rights—here, voter equality—on judicial shoals.

The reality that redefining electoral districts across the country by either eligible or registered voters would cast aside representation for people ineligible to vote or unregistered (who are largely people of color) is only indirectly considered. It’s framed as an unfortunate cost needed to make each vote cast equally contested by candidates – a pipe dream as turnout can easily inflate a given voter’s power or swamp their decision in a sea of others’. These organizations, all too recently comfortable with the legal realities of Apartheid, were pushing for a milder version of the same multi-tiered political system, where there are people represented and people beneath consideration.

Perhaps most tellingly, the case here sought a structural response to the reality that millions of people are disenfranchised – while being incarcerated (and depending on the state, afterwards as well), for being undocumented or otherwise non-citizens, or from the inaccessibility of the voter registration system. Instead of asking why those people are beyond the pale of electoral participation and what could be changed about that, it treated their exclusion as an accepted given to be worked around.

Luckily the Supreme Court saw things differently, and as the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund described it:

Upwards of 75 million children—13 million of whom are Black—not yet eligible to vote would have been counted out of the redistricting process had appellants prevailed. Indeed, appellants’ case threatened to take America’s redistricting process back to nefarious periods in our democracy similar to when Black people were counted as 3/5ths of a person for redistricting purposes and expressly excluded from the body politic.

The Court’s decision today vindicates the “one person, one vote” standard, which rightly takes into account Census-derived total population counts when apportioning voting districts. This standard has been applied universally for over 50 years by all 50 states and the thousands of localities within them. Moreover, this clear understanding of “one person, one vote” is already regarded as America’s “de facto national policy” in legislative redistricting, enjoying overwhelming, bipartisan support among state and local governments. Today’s decision reaffirms the guiding logic of this inclusive standard, which fosters access to electoral representation and constituent services for all people, regardless of race, sex, citizenship, economic status, or other characteristics, or whether a person chooses to or is able to vote.

That vision of participatory democracy is the engine that’s helping to drive these modest steps towards a fairer political and economic system. This newly post-Scalia Supreme Court has made clear that they favor that understanding of how this country could organize itself.

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Economic justice… for whom?

It’s one of the familiar just so stories about US politics that’s become crystal clear in recent decades. The Democrats want to maintain or even expand programs designed to provide economic resources and benefits to people with less. Republicans want to shrink or dismantle those types of programs. One party for workers, one party for the “1%”, so the story goes.

Even the candidates who look like exceptions – like Donald Trump with his promises to maintain social security and medicare – tend to ultimately reveal policy ideas that firmly locate them in the political party that they’ve already embraced (Trump, for example, thinks “wages [are] too high” – an implicit criticism of current minimum wage standards).

More interesting, I think, than those less easily categorized oddballs are the terms on which the debate between these two camps is being held. Economic redistribution and inequality are actually somewhat lofty, vague even, concepts. How to measure, to quantify them is an open question. The language tends to be like that in what I’ve linked above – a discussion focused on easily indexed numerical statistics: wages, entitlements, inflation, productivity, unionization.

That’s not a wrongheaded way of talking about who wins and who loses in the US economy, but it’s just one way of doing that. Unfortunately, it’s a way shaped by, and sometimes specifically for, articulating a particular group’s economic grievances. One of the easiest ways of seeing that is in terms of communities with large numbers of undocumented people – for whom income taxes are a murky territory and benefits exist in a similarly unclear limbo.

For largely Latin@ agrarian worker communities, how do you quantify being an exception to environmental regulations? For the far broader set of populations at risk of being targeted with detention or even deportation, how can that not be among other things an economic threat – both held over you by your boss and your landlord but also just ominously lurking outside your home, endangering everything you have.

2016-01-04_1015.pngLeft, 2012 chlorpyrifos use in the western US, from here. Right, a heatmap of Latin@s in the western US made using the 2010 census, from here.

The Bernie Sanders campaign has recently sought to highlight a difference between their candidate and Trump. Sanders is a meaningful, redistributive choice. Trump is manipulating some of those hoping for greater economic opportunity, without any intention to deliver on it. In order to prove that, the Sanders campaign has latched on to Trump’s comments on wages.

Why was that necessary? Trump has already spoken to a more wild set of economic policies designed to hoard resources for some. That’s one of the things inherent in his promise to deport millions of people. That is economic injustice, and it’s important to ask why it hasn’t been considered that by the largely non-Latin@ mainstream media or presented as that by the redistribution-centered campaign of Bernie Sanders.

Is the economic populism advanced by Sanders and tolerated within major media really for everyone? Whose concerns does it speak to? Whose concerns does it barely register?

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What good does it do?

Rhetorically, there were a number of moments in last night’s debate that seem to have captured parts of the liberal imagination. Hillary Clinton appealed to a basic right to bodily autonomy and to make that right accessible with support for Planned Parenthood and related medical providers. Bernie Sanders unequivocally declared that Black Lives Matter. Martin O’Malley almost captured something similar by stating that bigotry had no room in the Democratic Party, but Jim Webb’s own comments throughout the night called that belief in such a categorical progressiveness into question. Even in that case, Webb’s presence highlighted his out-of-place status in the broader Democratic Party. As Jamelle Bouie put it:

In short, Webb being there only underscored the stated commitments to addressing racial, gendered, and other inequalities. There aren’t really any Dixiecrats anymore. This is what the Democratic Party has become.

So with a tight field of candidates largely competing to be a presidential nominee who could advance that sort of US self image at the highest level in the country, what’s not to love? The Democratic Party has won the popular vote five out of six times in the most recent elections (which translated into four uncontested wins). The Reagan Revolution seems to have been more of a momentary happenstance of White Flight from the Democratic Party that could make the White House an insurmountable Republican fortress.

While White people continue to be a majority of residents of the US, and disproportionately represented in electoral registration and participation, enough didn’t flee the Democratic Party that they and a growing number of voters of color can be a surprisingly effective electoral coalition. It’s tempered by all of the problems inherent in national coalitions – it’s slow-moving, continually renegotiated, and subject to limited radical action – yet it can at least promise to get a lot done and seemingly mean it.

Part of the implied problem there is that there are limits to what any political party can do. Almost by definition, they operate within a standard political process. The closest thing to an alternative are parties like Sinn Féin or historically India’s Congress Party, which are political branches of counter-state forces. The Democratic Party’s origins are rather different from that sort of an organization, and the type of imperial conditions that encourage those types of political parties haven’t existed in the US for several centuries. In the absence of that, a mainstream, gradualist policy-tinkering has become the order of the day.

Even that however is difficult for Democrats to enact on a national scale as the brief window in 2009-2011 showed. As a Party, they held the presidency and majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Healthcare reform debates choked out almost every other reform issue, leaving us with the current situation in which many hallmarks of the Bush era linger – most obviously widespread warfare, indefinite detention centers, and mass surveillance. Deportation actions increased, Guantánamo remains open, and we’re using drones more than ever. Weren’t the Democrats interested in ending all of that? Weren’t there great flowery statements in debates and elsewhere on the campaign trail against those exact things?

There’s a number of other, less intractable factors that could be blamed for that, from fickle Blue Dogs to Filibuster-enabling Joe Lieberman. As much as the Democrats can’t deliver on everything because of the political and electoral system they must work within, there’s also a question of what they can do with a presidency dependent on how well they do in Congress and the states. Tomorrow and later this week I’ll take a look at the prospects of the Democratic Party in down ticket races and what they could potentially make of 2016.

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Say what you want to say

As I mentioned the last time I posted in – good lord – July, I’ve been reexamining a lot of aspects to how I put together articles here. At that time it was mostly about just how I drew on outside resources, specifically that I wanted to broaden my horizons in terms of what news sources I read, and as a result who shaped the meta-analysis that I tend to give here. Since then, I haven’t posted much because I’ve been a busy bee for other reasons, what with an internship at 429. That’s been a learning opportunity in a number of ways, but a key part of it has been changing how I look at the news cycle, and with that reexamining my writing tendencies and strategies.

On here (and even to some extent other places I write, even 429), there’s a driving sense to say something relevant. I can make decisions about what to talk about, but my choices should be comparatively narrowed to what other people are already talking about. Actually working in the media, not just doing what I do here, has taught me how nonsensical that is. Just take the example of the on-going detention crisis. You read that right, on-going. It might seem like the discussion on that is over, that presumably some sort of solution has been reached since the blanketing coverage from this summer has disappeared. The reality is, however, that the coverage of this issue has never reflected the reality on the ground.

The reality that many major news resources were late to the party in discussing minors being excessively and inhumanely detained was hinted at on shows run by some of the bigger names, such as MSNBC’s “All in with Chris Hayes” which acknowledged that other programs had long recognized that a refugee population had been created by instability in Central America. José Díaz-Balart, a dual MSNBC and Telemundo newscaster, was brought on to augment Hayes’ coverage, something of a nod to the face that many Latin@ news circuits had been discussing the militarized border and increasing reliance on detention systems for months if not years previously.

Since then, the Obama administration and a patchwork of legislators and administrators have cobbled together a family detention system, which attempts to create larger facilities, to at the very least not separate families within the process. Feminist media covered the ways in which these new systems have failed to recognize the often sexual violence many women and children were fleeing and even perpetuated those experience in new forms. Latin@ media likewise stayed atuned to the story. And even I covered some LGBT dimensions to it over at 429. One thing you’ll note about those articles other than mine is that they aren’t, like Chris Hayes’ segment, terribly reflective of prior coverage. Mine makes note of some of the last major news pieces that discussed the problem, while the other two almost exclusively focus on the policy on the ground, with media coverage having long since moved on to other topics.

news cycle
(“The News Cycle” – it doesn’t quite work like that.)

That’s not a fluke. What that’s a reflection of is how much major media’s focus is driven by other reporting, and how desperately necessary smaller and more “ideological” or “perspective-taking” reporters are to covering what’s happening in the world. As a news-watcher, you need to look for more creative and less responsive media as much as possible, and if you are a news-creator, you need to be very careful in what sources you draw from because some of them are already out of touch.

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The threat of the executive order

If you’re on the Howard Dean-affiliated Democracy for American email list, you’ve probably already seen this image, which they sent out seemingly yesterday to their thousands (if not million plus) of subscribers:


(Literally anything?)

Huh. Now if that isn’t a symbol for our times. Not in that executive orders are more common (they aren’t), but that they’ve become necessary for basic political functions. In the 1980s and 1990s (and even the often called dysfunctional Bush years), the United States paid its bills, kept the lights on, and even updated the image of who was working and living in the United States. The legislature had it’s moments of inane or counter-productive behavior (Clinton’s impeachment seems like it shouldn’t be forgotten), but on the hold, governance was shared between a presidency, a congress, a high court, and numerous other functional elements to a political system.

That no longer exists. The threat of a executive order has been one of the sticks shown off in attempt to force congressional action on the debt ceiling, and similar attempts have now been made with regards to policy on indefinite detention, immigration, and now even the minimum wage. In a twisted way, the president has come to rely on (among other persuasion techniques) threatening to do everything himself in order to goad Republicans in Congress into action, which unfortunately only convinces them to dig in their feet harder (the better to oppose his “radical” policies!).

We’ve lost any semblance of a consensus that we as a country are viable in our current form, mostly because of rising conservative alternative theories. The resurfacing popularity among many Republicans of establishing a golden standard, of dismantling the Federal Reserve, of reversing Civil Rights victories, of overturning Roe, and of letting the US default on its debts and watch its federally-insurance banks go belly up in order to cleanse the economic system do not exist in isolation from each other. They tell a story of a long-negotiated political consensus about how the US economy and political system can and should be set up suddenly finding itself under attack in innumerable ways. It is likewise not an accident that secession is suddenly on the table again.

Within the context, it’s not just a useful threat to say that the President will keep those previously agreed-upon systems running. It’s also comforting to the people who would be protected by them. And it becomes unfortunately necessary to note that, comforting or not, executive orders have largely remained an overly polite bully pulpit for Obama, rather than an actual tool used to maintain (or even broaden) basic equalities and freedoms. Detainees are still waiting for their freedom in Guantánamo. Employees of anyone other than government contractors are still waiting for a raise. And the debt ceiling fight is threatening to come back again.

Systems are self-reinforcing, but only to a point. After a while, they need more than just a gentle nudge to keep them going. They need to be invested in and supported. How much longer will “good enough” be good enough?

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Update: still the same, but here’s how to change it

TW: US national security apparatus, mass surveillance

Alright, do you remember this? There’s a cross-party consensus of sorts in the US in terms of the need for and legitimacy of most of the hallmarks of the growing national security state (drone warfare, mass surveillance, indefinite detention, and so on). The unsuccessful vote last Wednesday on whether or not to begin restricting the surveillance program is simply another demonstration of that, as significant numbers of both parties voted against the amended bill, allowing the program to stand as is.

2013-07-29_2128

(The voting results – 205 for the limiting amendment, 217 against, and 12 not present. In terms of party composition, 94 Republicans and 111 Democrats were in favor, while 134 Republicans and 83 Democrats were against. Those who didn’t vote split evenly between the two parties, six votes on each side. From here.)

But likewise, it’s also rich in the same indications, in terms of how best to solve this problem. The vote breaks down not only with more favorable proportions of the Democrats compared to the Republicans voting for initial restrictions, but also with some indications of which Democrats are more likely to be supportive of these measures. From congressional representatives Pelosi (the minority leader), Wasserman Schultz (chair of the Democratic National Committee), and Hoyer (the minority whip), nearly every leadership figure voted against this. The major rift this reveals isn’t between libertarian and authoritarian wings of the Republicans but between the majority of Democrats and their leadership.

Frankly, the same could be said of the Republicans, whose speaker (Boehner), majority leader (Cantor), most recent Vice Presidential candidate (Ryan), majority whip (McCarthy [CA]), and a nationally contender for their nomination for the presidency (Bachmann) all voted in favor of it as well, in spite of it being introduced by a Republican.

The most important fact here however is that not only did Democrats break about 6-to-4 for the bill, but they did so against the indication of their leaders. The Republicans broke about 6-to-4 against the bill ostensible because of the signalling from their leadership. Not only do the raw data indicate that a lazy “both sides do it” argument is flawed, but the context indicates how ripe the Democratic Party is for the emergence of any leader who would break from the Republicans on this issue.

Besides the leadership, the unfortunate many other Democrats who voted in favor of the bill was full of many currently serving their first term (to name all 23 of them, representatives Bera, Castro [TX], Delaney, Duckworth, Enyart, Etsy, Frankel, Gallego, Garcia, Heck [WA], Kelly, Kennedy, Kilmer, Kuster, Sean Maloney, Meng, Murphy [FL], Peters [CA], Ruiz, Schneider, Sinema, Vargas, and Veasey). The indications of the Democratic leadership likely hold the highest sway over these representatives, so the appearance of any alternative position within the leadership appears likely to change many if not all of these representatives’ minds. Even without a key Democrat that could come forward and push this through, direct lobbying would still be best concentrated on these representatives.

Considering that the amendment was shot down by a simple majority with only 12 more votes than the opposition, targeting that group of senators is not only likely to produce different votes but also different votes that could sway the outcome of votes like these. In short, this is the most pragmatic approach to the current predicament, but it involves acknowledging differences between the parties’ representatives’ behavior and working within one of their established structures.

The question before this country’s civil libertarians is whether those are acceptable costs for changing US policy. Or rather, do they prefer decrying both parties in favor of a fairly good chance at changing the status quo?

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Presidential paradox

TW: indefinite detention, Guantánamo

One of the newer filings from a detainee at Guantánamo Bay, Ahmed Adnan Ajam, is honestly quite fascinating, and I recommend reading the Lawfare post about it, even if it’s quite brief.

Personally, I found it particularly enlightening as to the paradox the Obama administration has had to govern through. Elected in part to repair the extensive damage created by the Bush administration, we all expect him to use his presidential powers in something like a sweeping way, considering the widespread problems Bush left behind. That said, allowing the presidency’s powers to expand in the course of that would be to ignore the mechanics of what went wrong during the Bush years. Considering the since-2010 gerrymandered House of Representatives and catastrophically dysfunctional Senate, Obama has needed to, in isolation, stretch the limits of his office in order to shrink the limits of his office. Yeah, it strikes me as an oxymoron too.


(A comparison of Guantánamo detainees suggests that none of them are ever leaving the detention center, from here.)

The greatest disappointment of his governance, I’d have to say, is how he’s negotiated those odd, dual constraints. It’s easy and common to say that Obama is merely an extension of Bush, given his expansion of the drone strikes and continuation of mass surveillance systems, but I think that misses how complex the problem is. His administration appears to be hoping for detainees in Guantánamo to essentially sue Congress on their behalf. He’s fitting both of those oppositional standards, but not in unison on any given issue. His administration seems to have a talent at limiting its powers where the costs of that are high and failing to hold itself back when the impacts are quite large.

That seems to be how repairing Bush’s impact has failed – in that Obama has either overstepped or failed to lift a finger.

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Everything starts to come unglued

TW: ethnic cleansing, indefinite detention, torture, islamist violence

To be honest, I’m not quite sure what to make of the statements by Michael Sheehan, the US military official who explained that he’s concerned over the withdrawal of French troops from Mali and neighboring African countries aren’t “capable at all. What you saw there, it is a completely incapable force. That has to change.” You can practically see the rolling eyes that elicited as the Johannesburg Times summarized his explanation:

At the same time, [Sheehan] praised the French troops which ‘very rapidly’ pushed al Qaeda’s north African branch ‘back across the Niger river and took control of the major cities’ in northern Mali, he said. However, he added that much of the al Qaeda leadership had escaped. ‘They haven’t been killed or captured, but they (the French forces) have disrupted this very threatening sanctuary.’

Attributing the “successes” in Mali to the French seems like missing multiple forests for a single useless tree. As Sheehan makes it clear in the above quotes, he pictures the fight as being very geographically limited, which seems like deliberate stupidity considering that this is supposedly an intervention against an international islamist force that specialized in asymmetrical and guerrilla warfare. Beyond that particular nonsense, Sheehan seems very quick to declare the French forces superior, but there’s not a whole lot of semantic content to what they’re superior at. It’s been more than a month since the territorial advances he mentioned occurred – what have the French done since and beyond that?

The sad fact is that the French, Malian, and other purportedly anti-islamist forces in North Mali or Azawad have used different methods but frequently with similar methods: the deaths of seemingly innocent civilians of either Touareg, other Berber, or Arab background. I’ve covered a bit about that before, but in all honesty, what does the withdrawal of French troops do? Does it matter that the forces seeming to target especially Touareg civilians indiscriminately will be much more African than European? And trust me, there’s no indication of them stopping: the stories of torture, stories of murder by government forces, and other stories that make this seems like a developing bout of ethnic cleansing.


(Malian forces that have targeted Touareg civilians, from here.)

Many Touareg civilians seem to be caught between the threats of the Malian government’s forces and the assorted islamist rebel groups that threaten them as well, as much of the more in-depth reporting on civilians still living in the region show. Those are not conditions for long term peace, or even a simple conflict between islamists and the Malian government with Touareg nationalism rendered irrelevant.

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Looking away and laughing

TW: Argentinian “Dirty War”, torture, indefinite detention, police brutality, violence against protesters

So yesterday, amid assorted allegations (re)surfacing about the now sitting Pope, this happened:

Erick Erickson tweeting
(Tweet from yesterday, by former CNN commentator Erick Erickson.)

Um, okay then Mr. Erickson. There’s quite a few things that could be said about that type of joke, which I already jumped a bit into last week, but in the meanwhile let’s talk about the humor that people often deploy while trying to distance themselves from and trivialize violence. If you, as Erickson later explained himself, are able to somehow twist this into something else entirely, I honestly have no idea what to say to you.

For those of you who are still reading, allow me to clarify: some of the allegations against the current Pope are indeed false. The Guardian has retracted what they originally published about him in 2011 (namely that he might have allowed the Argentinian junta to move political prisoners onto Church-controlled islands in order to hide them, which seems to be what Erickson was basing his complaint off of). But aside from that, there’s the small matter of him having informed the Argentinian government of a fellow Jesuit he suspected of coordinating with feminine religious orders, guerrillas, and otherwise earned being deported (after being detained and tortured by Bergoglio’s own admission). Isn’t that pretty Pontius Pilate of him?

Bergoglio's memo to the Argentinian government urging the deportation of a Jesuit Priest
(The original document he had sent to the Argentinian government to request the deportation of another Jesuit priest.)

There’s a sort of confusing response that seems to typically crop up over these sorts of situations – where an ostensibly “conservative” or “traditional” government is killing and torturing thousands of people. It seems to be that many celebrate and are entertained by the violence against those they deem as deserving it, but on some level realize that that will be frowned on and deemed unacceptable. So, they joke about those disappeared, while denying that the disappearances happened (or, at least, that anyone prominent in Argentinian politics at the time could possibly have been involved). It’s a strategy of simultaneously reveling in and denying the existence of terrible violence.

That’s unfortunately a very relevant perspective to watch for appearing around Brooklyn today. In the wake of the police shooting Kimani Gray, a purportedly unarmed sixteen year old Black youth in the East Flatbush area, protests against those sorts of incidents failed to pass the police’s test of what was acceptable. As people were imprisoned and homes searched without warrants, the police also managed to remove most professional media from the area. In a very real sense, violence has been doled out in the past few days against an entire community in Brooklyn, and most our society has decided to look the other way.

Still, some accounts slip through. You can read descriptions like this one:

Towards the end of the night, a group of teenagers standing on a curb were taunting a few cops standing several feet away in the street. After a few minutes and seemingly unprovoked, an officer reached onto the sidewalk to grab one of the teenagers, who took off running. This sparked an all out foot-chase, with officers in hot pursuit of the runner and some of the NYPD’s less athletic members cheering their fellow officers on. The runner cut down a side street, media and police giving chase. The suspect got away, but about halfway down the street police briefly detained a separate young man who was going home for the night. He was black—as was the runner—and immediately informed the police that he wasn’t the person they were looking for. One cop was heard explaining that he was on orders from his sergeant to arrest him. While several white cops walked the wrong man toward a police van, they ultimately decided to let him go.

Or you can simply see a few of the clandestine photographs of the situation. Or you can hear about how everyone arrested under suspicion of “rioting” is being held for an extended period. Hopefully those sorts of depictions of what’s actually happening right now in one part of the most populous city in the United States will make you think.

Hopefully, the last thing they’ll make you do is laugh.

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Let’s catch up on Palestine

TW: indefinite detention, violation of due process, torture, racist violence

The number of politically significant events that occurred in Palestine and Israel over the past weekend is actually staggering, but between the Oscars and numerous other on-goings in the world, they’ve sadly been largely overlooked. I think it’s necessary to be informed about them, so hopefully this will provide a quick exploration of what’s happened so far.

While this isn’t as directly interconnected to the following events as they are to each other, it seems noteworthy that files from 1982 were finally declassified, which revealed that while Ariel Sharon, at that time serving as the Minister of Defense, feared that the Israeli government’s actions in the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres could be legally considered genocide. This joins the fact that independent Israeli investigators tend to pin much higher casualty estimates on the massacres, in some cases determining as many as 3,000 Palestinian civilians then living in Lebanon to have been killed. In short, this reveals that the Israeli state is aware of the severity of its actions and either chooses to ignore their meanings or actively accept them.

The previous day Israel finally provided charges against and summarily convicted Samer Issawi, who had been held without them for over two hundred days – for the vast majority of which he has been on a hunger strike. Apparently he violated the terms of his early release from Israeli custody in 2011 by leaving East Jerusalem, where he lived, to go to the West Bank to fix his car at a particular garage. So, the eight months of him being held without charges have come to a close, but only because his prosecutors worked out something to charge him with.

Another imprisoned Palestinian, Arafat Jaradat, was even less lucky. After being arrested under suspicion of having thrown stones at Israelis on February 18, his body was provided to his family on Saturday. He disappeared into the blackhole of Israeli prisons and didn’t come out alive. His death has stimulated a series of mass protests, fueled by the fact that an autopsy conducted in Israel suggested that he had six different broken bones in his body – suggesting either serious mistreatment while in Israeli custody, or that he was quite purposefully killed. Yesterday, Israel announced that two additional Palestinian detainees, who like Samer Issawi had been protesting their detentions with hunger strikes, would not be provided to a court hearing because they were too weak. The fact that such a decision only extends their time without food was either deliberately ignored or never occurred to the Israeli court.


(On that same day, a Palestinian woman was jumped by a group of Jewish Israelis and beaten in public after a mild argument, from here. Other, Israeli sources suggest that municipal security guards witnessed the attack and did nothing.)

That’s the question that’s shouted by all of these incidents: does the Israeli state realize what it’s doing? And I’m not entirely sure which answer is worse.

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As this post involves extensive discussion of both Israel and Palestine, I should let you know the requirements of comments are much higher. If for any reason I interpret your comments as expressing hostility towards broad political, social, religious, or ethnic groups, they will be deleted. That’s your warning.

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The broad progressive coalition fails to emerge in Israel

TW: suicide, indefinite detention, police brutality

If you care to peruse the Israel tag here you’ll come across a number of different developments in the past few months that haven’t boded well for any civilians in the region. Police violence has long been endemic in Israel, but a recent report by +972 has tried to shed light on the powers behind the brutality. In short, there’s a culture of impunity particularly for those viewed as moderates because they don’t support quite as extreme measures against Iran and Palestine. Those who are highly ranked in the military are given glowing mentions in the New York Times and touted, even by their more humanist critics, as Israel’s great last hope.

Now, if only they weren’t imprisoning Israeli’s with secret evidence. And if only those detained weren’t kept in solitary confinement for so many months that they became suicidal. And if only there wasn’t a legitimate case to be made that they were a literal “shadow government”. Darn.


(The facility in Ramla, Israel, where Ben Zygier committed suicide after multiple months in solitary confinement, from here.)

Unfortunately, even in how their failings are being noticed and called out you can see the cracks in a hypothetical broad coalition of those against war mongering, those against systemic disenfranchisement and criminalization of  Arabs and Palestinians, and those against the transformation of Israel into a police state. One of the core cases examined by the article was that of Anat Kamm, who I’ve commented on before. Indeed, what has happened to her was monstrous and reflective of the growing power of the military and similar martial forces in Israel.

But as I pointed out when her case initially became public in October, her imprisonment coincided with the killing of a Palestinian woman and her daughter who were in the process of signalling that they were non-combatants by waving a white flag. If there’s an undemocratic autocracy developing in Israel, its effects are felt unevenly. A few Jewish Israelis are imprisoned for inadequate fealty to the emerging order, but Palestinians are harassed and locked away on a much larger scale. The purported moderate-ness of the effective governors of Israel is just that – purported. The systemic inequalities against Arabs and Palestinians in territory Israel claims are not only continuing but worsening under their rule.

An effective challenge of the increasingly undemocratic norms in Israel needs to criticize the constant violence doled out rather than be selective about it.

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Obama and the office of the president

TW: indefinite detention, suspension of constitutional rights, violence against protesters

Today is President’s Day, which is a federal holiday in the US used to commemorate President Washington and President Lincoln, who are often recalled as the man who saved us from dictatorship twice over (from the UK and from himself) and the man who prevented the dissolution of the United States into smaller, weaker states during the Civil War. Though they might have done such remarkable feats which many residents of the US benefit from to this day, we often don’t like talking about what resources they had at their disposal to do so.

This, of course, is particularly noticeable today, on the day that we inevitably laud both of those prior presidents and inadvertently contrast our lofty depictions of them with the all too fallible reality the Obama administration has given us. Just a few days earlier, it was reported that those how have been indefinitely detained in Guantánamo in opposition to almost every major judicial policy laid out in the US constitution are now being subject to warrantless searches while in court. Sadly, there’s an argument to be made that warrants wouldn’t be necessary, since their jail cells were being searched, rather than their homes – nevermind that they’ve been forced to live in those cells for years now. The legal procedures are so broken, it’s hard to even sort out how many judicial norms are being broken at once.


(An unnamed Guantánamo detainee sleeps in his cell in 2008. Cells like this were targeted for searches while their usual occupants were at court hearings. Image from here.)

There’s little attention paid to how Washington personally led American troops in the successful putting down of the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791, which resulted in one protester being shot and another repeatedly stabbed. In a judicial decision both of those deaths were deemed accidental but that’s a difficult explanation to swallow, particularly in the case involving multiple stab wounds. It seems quite important to admit that the first presidency of the United States under our modern constitution was marred by agents of the state killing protesters with impunity.

Likewise, whether you ultimately swallow Lincoln’s argument that habeas corpus needed to be suspended since an insurrection was happening and many citizens of the United States were no longer operating as citizens of that country, you have to admit he suspended the right to a trial and the necessity for the state to have legal charges before detaining a person. Many of the same legal rights that have been broken time and again by the Bush and Obama administrations were outright erased from the legal system for a few years under Lincoln.

In short, the constitutional norms and legal precedents of the United States’ constitution have been uniquely damaged over the past thirteen years, but those violations are by no means a break from an otherwise smooth political history, particularly when the lives of Black Americans, women, and other systemically disenfranchised groups are considered. While it might seem topical to contrast the modern situation with what’s often imagined to have been the United States of  Lincoln’s and Washington’s time, there’s less of a contrast there than we might want to admit.

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Greenwald and Hagel

There’s many different critical responses that could be and in some cases have been launched against Glenn Greenwald’s recent article on how former Senator Hagel would be an acceptable Secretary of Defense because he says nice things about Palestinians (never mind doing anything about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) and even if he’s part of the “Washington Consensus” so are all Democrats everywhere. Which is interesting because the evidence for how Hagel’s a part of that Washington Consensus suggests it’s more of a Republican Consensus which he’s been part of. As Greenwald discusses it, the consensus he disagrees with is “America’s posture of endless war and militarism, and ceasing our antagonizing of the entire Muslim world (and large parts of the rest of the world)”.

He ties this repeatedly to the carte blanche often awarded to Israel in wars of aggression with other nations that are predominantly Muslim, implying that Hagel has opposed such things. This of course overlooks Hagel’s controversial support of a 1998 Senate bill which protested UN examinations of violence against Palestinian people experienced with the support or permission of the Israeli state (and referred to such investigations as “inequality” faced by Israel, seriously). If you look at the break down on that controversial bill (which passed by a single vote, say, Hagel’s), it was overwhelmingly supported by Republicans and overwhelmingly opposed by Democrats. Some bipartisan consensus, eh?

And that was the major vote on Israel during Hagel’s tenure – an act of support for precisely what Greenwald is convinced he’s against. This isn’t a single comment about a potential ambassador being “militantly” gay that everyone can pretend wasn’t actually a big deal. This is Hagel’s legislative record that Greenwald has essentially denied as being what it patently is.

Of course, if we look at slightly more recent national security votes instead of those Greenwald purportedly found convincing, you look at early post-9/11 votes on national security issues, there sure does seem to be a bipartisan consensus that civil liberties need to be scaled back to fight the islamist menace and while we’re at it we should just bomb a few countries because we felt like it. “Moderate” Republicans like Hagel, the fire breathers, and Democrats all agreed with one voice to be the horrifying militarists that Gleenwald thinks they still all are.


(Behold the damning vote on our right to invade Afghanistan, as tabulated here.)

Of course, not only was this bipartisan consensus unrelated to Hagel’s apparent exception on Israel that Greenwald’s hallucinated, it didn’t last. Only slightly more than a year later, as the Senate debated showing support for a preemptive invasion of Iraq, the Democrats split and the Republicans forged ahead. The result was the passage of the bill, but with clear Democratic distaste for it:

A few years even later still, the Senate was forced to vote on whether we should explicitly work to avoid using cluster munitions, especially in fighting near urban areas densely populated with civilians. This was clearly of import to how we would wage the war in Iraq which was on-going and growing more heated in many Iraqi cities. It failed but with a significant minority of Democrats (and not a single Republican) supporting it:

One year later than that, the Senate would vote on whether we should begin drawing down troops in Iraq, spurred by the new Democratic majority in the House that it might be possible to end the war by voting in large enough majorities that President Bush wouldn’t or couldn’t veto the bill. They thought they could count on the support of “moderate” Republicans like Hagel. They thought wrong, and the bill failed in the Senate by two votes with clear party preferences on it:

Hagel voted in favor of actually all of the previous bills, except for the more mindful use of cluster munitions, which he voted against. He voted with his party every single time, defining in many of these crucial votes how the US would wage the “War on Terror” both at home and abroad for most of the Bush years. Yes, the Democrats are terrible people that caved in the aftermath of 9/11 and still cave a little too much – but many of them have been voting against the “DC consensus” as Greenwald calls it for years now, but he just knows in his heart of hearts, “they hug policies of militarism far more eagerly and unquestioningly than Chuck Hagel ever would”.

Of course, these comparisons might be groundless since we have many new faces in the legislature and a new president at that. Likewise, Hagel is no longer present to provide a voting record. That being said, the death of the consensus lives on, with the Senate Democrats trying to ban things like indefinite detentions of US citizens, and having a few too many of their party cross over to the other side and a few too few of the “moderate” Republicans come over to theirs. Still, to say there’s no difference means having some strange inability to understand the percentages of support for and against the bill:

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We’re taking the Cato Institute seriously on this?

TW: torture, indefinite detention, surveillance of civilians, violations of civil liberties

One of the more intriguing and yet overlooked things to have happened in the past couple of weeks while I haven’t been blogging at full speed happened on the Rachel Maddow show, a few days after Christmas while Ezra Klein was filling in for her. He decided to address the fact that bipartisan support for effectively warrantless wiretapping of US citizens is still the norm, which made particular sense in the wake of the Senate’s then recent extension of the government’s right to warrantlessly wiretap.

That said, a major part of how he covered those issues was to invite on Julian Sanchez, a research fellow at the Cato Institute, who then proceeded to label President Obama and the Democratic-controlled Senate as the fundamental barrier to rescinding the vestiges of Bush era surveillance. The fact that this had to pass through the Republican-controlled House of Representatives disappeared from the discussion, which made clear that Sanchez and by proxy the Cato Institute are holding Democrats responsible but letting Republicans off the hook.

Unsurprising though this may be, coming from the Cato Institute, this speaks to several broader political problems we need to understand and respond to. The Cato Institute and many other libertarians in recent years have largely reinvented themselves as not only a libertarian think tank, but the group leading a call to arms on issues pertaining civil liberties. As already quite clearly Republican-friendly, much of that narrative has focused on how Democrats are the wannabe despots, in spite of much of the ideological groundwork for this being put together during the Bush years. But that strategy has started to bear fruit, with President Obama being implicitly asked why he doesn’t support “internet freedom” when the Republicans do and with this sort of an appearance being treated seriously on the supposedly den of social democracy at MSNBC.

Of course, whether this narrative actually makes sense with the facts on the ground is another question entirely. There is a point to be made that the leadership of both parties are unwilling to take on this issue, but the real question to be asked when faced with that fact is which party is most salvageable. And the answer is quite clear: the Democrats even if their current status on this particular issue is not much better than the Republicans.

The vote tallies tell this story quite frankly. The bill passed the House with the support of 227 Republicans, which alone would have been sufficient for that body’s approval. Admittedly, 74 Democrats went along with them, and obviously they should be held accountable for their support. But look at where the groundswell of opposition to this sort of a governmental powers is coming from – 7 Republicans voted against, compared with 111 Democrats. It’s quite clear that if the Cato Institute took civil liberties quite seriously, they’d be considering how best to ally with the Democrats who support their position, rather than alienating them.

Even if we accept the framing that Klein and Sanchez put in place, in the much more surveillance-supportive Senate, we can’t help but come to a slightly weaker version of the same conclusion. Yes, a majority of Democrats and Republicans supported the bill, but of the 23 who opposed it, 19 were Democrats, compared to only 3 who were Republicans. If the Democratic Party isn’t salvageable with those numbers, then the Republicans are long past saving. After all, the sole independent in congress, Senator Bernie Sanders, voted against the bill.

Beyond the broader partisan issues of how this subject has frequently been framed, there’s also the question of why we should even honor the Cato Institute’s work on this issue. This is an institute with staff that treated the extension of Miranda rights to an alleged terrorist as something to complain about or an opportunity to state that the Miranda decision “smacks of judicial lawmaking” (which is nothing more than an intelligent way of saying “judicial activism”). This is an institute which could only publicly defend the Obama Administration’s proposal to criminally try Guantánamo detainees by refusing to credit it as being his administration’s proposal. Of course, that was only the viewpoint publicly provided by the Cato Institute when it wasn’t ambivalently worrying that a trial might provide “a forum for propagandizing on behalf of al Qaeda” or bemoaned the legal use of “alleged” in media coverage pertaining to those trials. Because why would you expect a civil liberties-oriented think tank to concern itself with freedom of speech or presumption of innocence?


(At the time, the Cato Institute’s response to this was more or less “meh”. Image originally from here.)

But beyond questioning garden variety rights of the accused, Cato has hardly much of a record when it comes to the peculiar legal standards of the Bush Administration, namely when it comes to torture. Among other discussions on the subject, they saw fit to publish in May 2011 an article titled “Did Waterboarding Work?” which contains astounding statements like “We’ll probably never know the real value of coercive techniques. Surely some accurate information came from their use.” Actually, the fact that torture was not only dehumanizing and degrading but counter-productive had been an established scientific fact for years at that point, but that didn’t seem to trouble anyone over at Cato. And yet somehow, the institute that saw fit to publish this and has continued hosting it since then is the voice we should look to for advice on civil liberties?

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